Remembering Judy — A Talk with Garland Authority John Fricke about Upcoming Cabaret Convention Tribute

by Rob Lester

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 16, 2019

As part of the annual Cabaret Convention at Manhattan's Jazz at Lincoln Center, its third of fourth nights will be a Judy Garland-themed night with a bevy of singers saluting and sampling her repertoire. Among the 15 vocalists will be two stars of "Chasing Rainbows," the bio-musical at the Paper Mill Playhouse — Karen Mason and Ruby Rakos (who plays teen-aged Judy) — along with cabaret faves Sidney Myer, Billy Stritch, and co-host Klea Blackhurst. October 30 is the night.

The other host, happily, is the gracious go-to Garland authority John Fricke, who has authored several books about the legend, among other projects. I got the chance to ask him some questions about the icon and the upcoming evening. So, here's the impact and import and image of Judy, as this thoughtful, longtime observer sees things:

Her influence

EDGE: With the perspective of 2019 marking 50 years since Judy Garland's passing, and as the Cabaret Convention prepares to devote a night to her and her songs, what do you see as notable about her continuing influence on generations of singers whose lives and careers overlapped with hers and those who came after?

John Fricke: I think it depends on the individual singer and his or her savvy, as there's so much that may be amassed from watching/hearing Judy at any point across the three decades-plus she was prominent. That applies, as well, to the five decades since then, in which her presence hasn't waned for any of those knowledgeable about pop culture.

Judy's vocal technique was either basically natural, or learned and honed very early on: tongue down, jaw dropped, roof-of-mouth raised. Beyond that, she exemplifies someone who had (or developed) an individual style: part hit-the-back-of-the-house vaudeville and part camera-ready-intimate — yet she was always able to convey the appropriate emotion, whether far afield or up-close and personally.

Additionally, her repertoire was drawn from some seven decades of popular song and Broadway/Hollywood compositions, and the Garland versions of much of that "book" remain object lessons of what can be done with vocal arrangements, orchestration, and special material.

Those whose careers overlapped with hers have either publicly or privately declared their passion, inspiration, or debt. Barry Manilow is an avowed admirer, to the extent that he has said that, in some ways, he routined the early acts for Bette Midler after the emotional structure of Garland's shows.

Barbra Streisand, of course, appeared on Judy's TV series; several years later, when she worked with orchestrator/conductor Mort Lindsey and needed him to provide some arrangements for her, she requested that he "give me some [like] those" he had prepared for Garland. Peter Allen — not to mention Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli — all encompassed the same play-for-the-audience style and repertoire that Judy perfected.

In later years, Melissa Manchester happily conceded her early fascination and fandom, to the extent that "I played the Carnegie Hall [vinyl] album so much you could see through it!" Cyndi Lauper's a fan; I believe Gaga is. And there have been many others who reference Judy's overall, encompassing musicality — whether as pleasure, influence, or both.

It's also telling that all of the singers we approached to do the Garland evening on October 30th were immediately eager to participate — and came to the program planning with an enormous diversity of material they knew, loved, and wanted to share.

Underappreciated songs?

EDGE: Cabaret is known for embracing standards of the Great American Songbook and keeping them alive. Certainly Judy Garland introduced or was closely associated with quite a few that continue to be sung live and on recordings. But what are one or two numbers she did that you think deserve more attention than they get and are underappreciated? What is special about the song(s)?

John Fricke: Judy's songs across the years were often special — or became special or endured — simply because she sang them. Or had Roger Edens or Saul Chaplin to rework them into material that keeps them a joy despite the passage of time, i.e., respectively "Purple People Eater" and "Hello, Bluebird."

I think those two — and a number of others — are "discoverable," whether as pure vocals or as examples of what can be done with a basic 32-bar number (though not all of these fall into that numerical classification):

Judy's own favorite song was the Vincent Youmans/Edward Heyman "Through the Years." The final phrase of its lyric was added to the facing of her new final resting place in Hollywood last year: "I'll come to you, smiling through the years."

Of some of the other ballads that are under-the-radar, I've always liked (among many) Irving Berlin's "Better Luck Next Time," the Arlen/Gershwin "It's a New World," the Weill/Anderson "It Never Was You," the Harry Warren/Johnny Mercer "In the Valley (Where the Evening Sun Goes Down)," and John Meyer's "It's All for You."

In terms of the Garland up-tunes, so many were so vividly arranged that it's difficult to cite them as songs, per se — because they became one-woman production numbers in her hands. Thus, it isn't the songs themselves that require recognition; it's her version of them that comes to mind. One thinks of two that are already well-acknowledged: "Just in Time" and "By Myself," each with multiple interior key changes, Mort Lindsey as orchestrator — and Kay Thompson and Saul Chaplin (respectively) as vocal arranger. But seek out the Garland treatment of "Get Me to the Church on Time." It's a straight-ahead ensemble routine in "My Fair Lady," headed by Stanley Holloway. Judy's arrangement takes the song through almost twice — with a tag — and she's all by herself with the orchestra as she ranges upward through eight musical keys across 142 bars of music.

An emotional connection

EDGE: Is there a special priority point you want to make onstage in your commentary that has to do with correcting the record or mythology that has been out there?

John Fricke: Well, I can't speak for cohost Klea Blackhurst, but in my case... no. October 30th at Jazz at Lincoln Center will be about the music and lyrics; I think that's a primary — and pivotal — manner in which Judy Garland should be remembered. I also hope that she'd like that, too.

Meanwhile — given all the mis-reportage, misrepresentation, and lack of perspective/proportion and accuracy in many Garland retellings — an adequate "correction" would require an entire lecture series. And that's without any songs whatsoever.

EDGE: Cabaret is often described as crucially having a connection between singer and audience. Garland had that in spades. What specifically was one of the factors or approaches that other singers could learn from?

John Fricke: Well, I think the best of today's cabaret singer/entertainers already know most of this. The following litany of "approaches" is comprised of totally personal opinion, but it's founded on the Garland hallmarks of performance. As such, it should be applicable to any who sing — in any style of music or any sort of song.

Approach the material honestly. Sing the lyric. Have respect for your vocal range; don't pitch everything so high that you jjjjjjjjust BARELY make the notes. Share with an audience. Make the effort to engage them. Entertain them. Perform for them, be honest WITH them, make it about them — not just yourself; avoid dipping into a self-addressing me! me! me! approach. Open your eyes!

The fact that Judy selected a particular song to share is, in itself, a declaration of her internalization of its emotion. She then put it out there, did it for the audience, told and shared with them the story. She seldom, if ever, failed at it. Her eyes were open; you could look into them and see every emotion she felt and hoped to convey.

Unique in her greatness

EDGE: What do you hope or expect may be a little different or special to distinguish the upcoming night from the many other tributes to Garland or surveys of her career that have been done over the years?

John Fricke: Well, the evening will be different (from some, anyway) in that we hope to offer an ultimately uplifting, alternately heart-speaking or ebullient ENTERTAINMENT — and a solid reminder of the immeasurable joy and richness of emotion she created and sustained. (It's certainly proved to be timeless.) The October 30th concert also provides a solid overview of the variety of her repertoire; at last count, there were thirty-one songs on the roster, ranging from numbers written in the decade before Judy was born right up through the 1960s. (Among the songwriters represented: Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Dietz & Schwartz, Newley & Bricusse, Comden & Green, Roger Edens, Jule Styne, Jerry Herman, Lionel Bart, Harry Warren, Mack Gordon, Ted Koehler, John Meyer... )

It can't be Judy Garland herself. But we want it to be a reminder that there never was and never has been anyone like her.

For more info on the Cabaret Convention concerts of October 28-31, presented by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, visit the Foundation's website

ROB LESTER returns to Edge in 2019 after several years of being otherwise occupied writing and directing musical theatre shows, working as a dramaturg, arts consultant, and contributing articles and reviews to various outlets. His long-running "Sound Advice" column covering cast albums and vocal CDs has been running regularly at for almost 15 years.

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